Think of a successful football team, and mistakes don’t come to mind. Triumph comes from being drilled, faultless, always picking the best option, knowing your role with a radar-like awareness, punctuated by technical ability.
Premier League players shouldn’t make mistakes, especially not those at elite clubs. Correct? Not strictly.
Premier League managers are challenging this and proving its inaccuracy by winning titles. The freedom to make mistakes in the opposition half has been part of Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola’s narrative for years. Once their players get to a certain position on the pitch, it’s up to them. Try what you want, because that area of the pitch is too chaotic and unpredictable for rules. The more you try, and the more mental options available, the more likely something will hit.Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is no different, and the last three-and-a-half weeks of football suggest he’s getting it right.
Manchester United have become the first Premier League side to win four straight games by a three-goal margin; each win and all 14 goals have been through bold attacking play, trying this, trying that, and not sweating over a misplaced pass in the final third.
“In the first two or three moments after you win the ball, can you go forward?” he tells Sky Sports ahead of the Monday Night Football clash with Southampton at Old Trafford. “Can you go straight at them? If you lose the ball, don’t worry about it! You are so close to them, you can win it back. It has been so great to see the attitude of: ‘OK, I will try, and if I don’t succeed I will just go and win the ball back!’
“It’s fantastic for me to see them express themselves, because that’s a Manchester United team. We need to take chances, take risks, be brave, and most of the time you will reap the rewards if you are brave. We need to keep that mentality and bravery going forward.”The benefits of this environment, where mistakes aren’t internally punished, are limitless. It means confidence is harder to break, it means you try things you wouldn’t usually, and for United, it means breaking down teams who sit deep. A rigid attack often stalls.
It has been the blueprint to Klopp and Guardiola’s success, and if Solskjaer is to succeed, it will be the basis of his.But that habitat is difficult to build. We are taught from a young age – from school, parents, coaches – that mistakes carry punishment or derision, but Solskjaer has been building this culture at United since being confirmed as manager. In October he told me that culture was a work in progress, and though it is ever-evolving, the results are becoming clearer. It has been difficult at times, and he thanks Manchester United for the faith shown.
“We went through some difficult spells, especially around that time in October, and the club have been very good with us, they’ve kept in touch with us and have seen and known what we’re doing, and they’ve believed in what we’re doing.
“We were allowed to keep making the decisions without thinking about what could have been. They knew our ambition, what we want here, the environment we want here, which will then be the foundation for moving up the table.”